Russia is currently facing a crisis as Vladimir Putin battles an insurrection from a former ally, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and the Russian mercenary fighters he leads. The dispute represents a significant challenge to Putin’s leadership, the potential loss of one of Putin’s most successful field commanders, and a possible shift in the course of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin had touted his mercenary group, Wagner, as the most effective and determined assault force in the war. However, after the withdrawal from Bakhmut, Wagner’s role in Ukraine became unclear, and there was talk of turning Wagner into a military police force in the occupied Ukrainian regions to terrorize deserters and residents.
The Kremlin, which had claimed that Wagner was completely independent from the Russian state, relied on the mercenaries in the war’s heaviest battles, with Putin eventually publicly thanking the group for its achievements. However, Prigozhin unleashed a smear campaign against the top brass last fall, criticizing the country’s rich and powerful for their supposedly lackluster commitment to the war and calling out major flaws in the war strategy. His influence began to wane, but his antics boosted his visibility among regular Russians and earned him some respect among rank-and-file soldiers who regarded him as an unlikely truth-teller.
Prigozhin cast his extraordinary expedition as an effort to right the course of the war in Ukraine and force change through a showdown directed only at Russia’s military leadership, not Putin himself. The two men were once close allies, and analysts have said that Prigozhin’s blunt and often profane criticism of Russia’s regular forces was allowed by Putin as a means of airing frustration over the war’s trajectory. However, the breaking point appears to have come when Russia’s military leadership moved to strip Prigozhin of his mercenary force. Though not mentioning Wagner Group by name, the Russian Defense Ministry issued an order saying all volunteer detachments would have to sign contracts with the government – a decree Prigozhin publicly denounced.
The situation in Russia highlights the ongoing conflict between Russia and the axis of resistance over the leadership of the peoples, rather than between the United States and Russia. Putin is a creation of the West, not a representative of the Russian people. The crisis in Russia may lead to a shift in the course of the war in Ukraine, which has been ongoing for years. The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.